by Frank Schnittger
Fri Oct 25th, 2013 at 12:57:35 PM EST
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary
Ryanair has long been a source of a national embarrassment in Ireland. On the one hand it is one of the few truly successful Irish owned corporates which have succeeded in growing global in scope. On the other hand, it's corporate ethos, anti-union attitudes, and poor customer service and public relations have been... well embarrassing is perhaps too kind a word.
Recently the controversial Chief Executive, Michael O'Leary, has apparently had a blinding revelation on the road to Damascus. He has come to realize what many of us have known and been saying for years: his persona and the corporate culture that has grown from it have become a threat to Ryanair's ongoing growth and development. What was once a successful business model for a brash small start-up taking on the staid and expensive national flag carriers and aiming mostly for the young back-packer market - is now not helping Ryanair to continue to expand market share from its current position as the largest airline in Europe.
Many travelers now refuse to fly with Ryanair almost on principle; some because of its anti-union attitudes, some because of some bad experience with rude staff, some because the Ryanair website has become extremely awkward and irritating to navigate, and some because they do not wish to be herded like cattle and have to endure uncomfortable seats. This has meant that Ryanair passenger numbers have been rising more slowly than its major rival, Easyjet, despite the fact that Easyjet generally charges higher fares on its routes. Whilst trying to portray Ryanair's often low fares as a virtue, in reality, they have become a necessity if Ryanair is to attract passengers from other airlines - even when others are considerably more expensive.
Ryanair still has a long way to go in the public relations department, however. It has recently launched a series of high profile international legal actions against a nascent wannabe Ryanair pilots trade union, against individual pilots who questioned its safety policies, against Channel 4 and the Daily Mirror for reporting those concerns, and against anyone who makes derogatory comments about Ryanair on the internet anywhere in the world. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the European Tribune and I were to receive some kind of legal threat on foot of this article. One pilot was sacked for speaking publicly about his safety concerns.
I can, to some degree, understand Ryanair's frustration about the focus on it's safety record. It is quite remarkable that one of the largest airlines in the world has never lost a passenger or had a serious crash. Ryanair has a policy of buying only new, well proven, Boeing airplanes, and as a relatively young airline this means it has a fleet of relatively young and fuel efficient planes. It also flies almost exclusively in Europe where safety standards tend to be high. However news media and hostile websites highlight every incident involving Ryanair aircraft, even if they are not generally unusual or frequent for an airline with a fleet of over 300 aircraft.
But if you do your best to piss everybody off, be they staff, passengers, regulators, airport operators or news media, you can hardly expect a very sympathetic response in return. And this is the nub of the problem with Ryanair: In many respects it has revolutionized air travel for a country like Ireland, previously dependent on very expensive flag carrying airlines. Air travel is now relatively accessible for the less well off, and it has forced flag carriers like Aer Lingus to become equally competitive. I well remember flying to Geneva to visit a friend in Switzerland, and the air tickets were considerably cheaper than the quite short subsequent train journey. Ryanair's policy of flying into smaller, less busy airports - often quite remote from the advertised destination (see Frankfurt Hahn or Paris Beauvais) - means its arrival on time record is almost unrivaled, and yet its customer service has become a byword for shoddy. Just why is this, and does it have to be this way?
You can be cheap and efficient without having to be cheap and nasty, and Ryanair is beginning to show that it at least recognizes it has a major problem. Navigating the Ryanair website had become an ordeal with difficult to decipher "Recaptcha" barriers even if you only wanted to check a price, punitive charges for any mistakes made in the booking process or hand luggage size, and huge numbers of expensive add on services which you had to actively deselect if you only wanted to book a flight. There were numerous high profile stories of school groups stranded in far of places because the students did not have the cash for unexpected and exorbitant charges, or bereaved people being charged exorbitant fares when having to make sudden arrangements in tragic circumstances.
In addition, advertised prices were often misleading once all the unavoidable extras had been added in. The boarding process can be something of a nightmare for people with young children as you have to queue early to get seats together, and if you are to find room for your hand luggage in overhead compartments not designed to be big enough to carry all hand luggage if the flight is near full and everyone carries their maximum allowance.
Now, at least, you can pay extra for the privilege of "priority boarding" and can even book seats with extra legroom on some flights. The constant sales pressure can be irritating, as can the upright non-reclining hard seats and garish decor. But these are relatively minor gripes which you can accept as part of the "low cost experience".
Some of the proposed changes address some of the problems, but it remains to be seen if the "Ryanair experience" becomes a more pleasant one. Traveling is a stressful enough experience, especially for older people or people with children, without feeling that Ryanair is there to make life more difficult.
As well as needing to improve the objective quality of its services, Ryanair needs to improve the subjective experience as well. People need to feel welcome, relaxed, safe and well cared for. Staff need to feel rewarded and appreciated, their concerns recognized and acted upon, their rights upheld. It is difficult to see Ryanair's image ever improving substantially whilst O'Leary remains at the helm: He has become too associated with supercilious contempt for all and sundry. Ryanair may never receive whatever credit they deserve for positive changes whilst he remains at the helm.
But we may be witnessing the beginnings of a corporate turnaround, and at least Ryanair do have the scale and technology to make a good product that sells. Ryanair have just ordered 175 new Boeing 737-800 Aircraft so they need to broaden their appeal if they are to remain a successful commercial organization.
PS Some of the comments have already expressed some very negative attitudes/experiences with regard to Ryanair. I would be interested in getting a sense of what turns people off most, so I have added a poll below: